In the hunt for funds:$1.5 billion for Upstate development

Mike Murphy and John Christensen

The Finger Lakes and other upstate regions will soon try to be like Buffalo, at least when it comes to getting state money. Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in Chili Jan. 15 to present the second part of his 2015 Opportunity Agenda — a $1.5 billion Upstate New York Economic Revitalization Competition to help continue to restore economic opportunity to regions across upstate. He unveiled the first part the day prior — a $1.7 billion property tax credit program for homeowners and renters.

The competition will replicate the Buffalo Billion initiative, a $1 billion program that focused on jumpstarting the economy of the entire western New York region and driving community revitalization, job growth and population sustainability, Cuomo said.

The Finger Lakes is one of seven regions eligible to compete for one of three $500 million upstate revitalization funds. The others are Mid-Hudson, Capital Region, Mohawk Valley, Central New York, North Country, and Southern Tier. The Western New York region, which benefited from the Buffalo Billion, is not eligible, nor are New York City or Long Island.

Steve Griffin, CEO of the Finger Lakes Economic Development Center, Yates County’s Industrial Development Agency/Economic Development Organization, was present for Cuomo’s announcement along with mayors, county legislators, and economic development executives from all over Upstate New York. Griffin says the competition will be in conjunction with round four of the Consolidated Funding Application Awards pursued by the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs).

Like the Buffalo Billion, Griffin believes that most, if not all of any money that might be won for the Finger Lakes Region would go to Rochester. Griffin says Cuomo explained that the funding for Buffalo was not easy to do, but they needed it the most, and that Rochester is in comparable condition, with the highest rate of extreme childhood poverty, more than 50 percent, among cities of comparable size in the entire nation.

“I think this is a fantastic initiative,” says Griffin. “It helps re-energize the REDCs, and I’ll be interested to see more detailed and specific plans. I’ll know more after the next REDC meeting next month.”

Griffin believes devoting the funds to help Rochester’s economy would not be a bad thing for Yates County. “As Rochester goes, so go the suburbs. Rochester’s heyday was Penn Yan’s and Yates County’s heyday, too,” he says. “Our chances are good; Rochester definitely has challenges to overcome, but they have the right mix of universities, corporations, and agencies to cooperate and get it done.”

Griffin calls the problem the chicken and the egg; the region can’t attract companies without a skilled workforce, and won’t have a skilled workforce without active companies. “Right now the problems are poverty and low wages. Penn Yan has the lowest average wage rate in the state, but also a low unemployment rate. If manufacturing can grow in Rochester again, it will benefit the outlying counties, too. It did before and it can again.”

Projects exhibiting region-wide impact will be made a priority and should focus on strengthening critical infrastructure, revitalizing communities, bolstering workforce development, growing tourism and improving quality of life, Cuomo said.

The competition will combine the expertise and structure of the Regional Economic Development Councils with successful elements of Western New York’s Buffalo Billion to develop regional investment plans that identify existing assets, highlight needs and recommend areas of opportunity, Cuomo said.

Deputy Erie County Executive Richard Tobe was appointed Thursday to serve as director of upstate revitalization, and lead the efforts of the competition. The competition and process for winning upstate revitalization funds will be guided by a five-member committee, which includes representatives from the Brookings Institute, the National Urban League, Cornell University, and state agencies.

Between now and April, regions will plan and engage parties interested in participating in the competition, which will formally launch April 15. Submissions will be due July 1, and winners will be announced in the fall.